Old Man's War


John Scalzi


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

May 10, 2007

or a first novel, this a nice achievement. Scalzi tells the interesting story of John Perry, a man who enlists in the Colonial Defense Force at the age of 75. The story takes place several centuries in the future. Humanity has colonized the stars, but has discovered the galaxy is a deadly place teeming with belligerent aliens, so soldiers are needed. A 75 year old has a wealth of experience and education, skills that the CDF needs to fight the hostile aliens.

The fact that Perry's aged body is breaking down isn't a deterent to the CDF, they still want Perry. Earth's medical technology seemingly hasn't advanced too much in the next couple of centuries. Perry at age 75 is just like an relatively healthy 75 year old person living today. But the CDF does have advanced technology (which they don't share with Earth), they have a way to make Perry young again, so this is a big recruiting attraction. Perry signs up, gets rejuvenated, and goes through some harrowing training, and then he is off to battle various aliens.

Most of the positive reviews of this book focus on the fast moving story and positive characterization. Perry is an engaging character, smart and likable. Perry has some fun adventures. My complaints with this story is that Scalzi clearly didn't put much thought into the universe he was building. Perry doesn't act or think like he is 75 - the CDF recruits aged humans because it values their life experiences, but I can't recall any where in the novel where Perry uses his wisdom, he seems just like any 20 year old guy.

After I read about the hostile universe described in this book a host of questions arose: if the CDF can construct "Ghost Brigades" - of super soldiers, why not make use of those forces exclusively, why bother recruiting and training second tier types like Perry? How did humans get the "skip drive" in the first place - you can't trade or steal technology from aliens until you meet them, but how can you meet aliens without the "skip drive"? Aliens that are exactly like humans but only 1 inch in height is a careless idea, there is no evolutionary reason for a species like that to exist. Nor can you create humans with super abilities and green skin by mixing "alien genes" to human DNA - this is comic book science - as if adding a "cheetah gene" to humans would allow humans to run 50 mph but still look like a human. If the CDF can transfer consciousness from one body to another, why not make copies of the consciousness? Why do the ghost brigades use human form at all, why not construct indestructible cyborg that would be much better suited for fighting? The fighting sequences are unimaginative also - soldiers on the ground with "super rifles" battle aliens in warfare that seems 20th century in its approach. Why not put that artifical gravity to work as a weapon, why not some advance battle techniques - like bombarding the surface of the alien planets with comets? Why attempt to describe a multi-universe, but then give up because "you wouldn't understand the math." If the galaxy is full of hostile aliens competing for colony planets, why wasn't Earth ever invaded?

My other problem with this story is how closely it parallels The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman. Scalzi should show more imagination in his plotting, rather than retreading well plowed ground. I haven't read a lot of the sub-genere of "military science fiction", so may be Old Man's War compares favorably to the works of Weber, Deitz, Moon, Bujold and Drake - I don't know. Of the military SF books that I have read, Old Man's War falls short. Much better books are The Forever War, Armor by Steakey, Ender's Game by Card, and of course Starship Troopers by Heinlein. i remember liking the Bolo stories about sentient tanks by Keith Laumer. Still, this is only Scalzi's first novel, and with that in mind it is a pretty good effort. I see he has already published a few other novels, including a sequel called The Ghost Brigades. Hopefully, this burst of productivity doesn't indicate a lack of careful plotting and universe building. I will probably read at least one more of Scalzi's books to see if gets any better.